Tuesday, February 28, 2012

One-Mind Tracks: Self-Referencing Songs

In the present day, many rappers tag a song as theirs by using their name during the intro. And you can barely listen to a Lady Gaga song without hearing "Gaga" somewhere in it. But the storied history of bands singing about themselves goes way back. I would like to share with you eight of my favorite examples of bands singing about themselves.

The Monkees by The Monkees
This one's probably the simplest to explain: The Monkees was a TV show. The theme song to the show doubled as a song on the band's first album. Luckily, it's a solid song (granted, it's easier to listen to if you haven't watched every episode of the series multiple times).

Welcome to Tally Hall by Tally Hall
Back to the old stand-by, I once again bring your attention to Tally Hall. This song not only references the band as a whole, it also introduces each member individually. In addition, it serves to introduce audiences to the whimsy and sometimes varying styles of the band.

Everybody Have Fun Tonight by Wang Chung
I assume it has something to do with the way the music market was set up in the 80s, but it seems it was very common for artists to create "self-titled" songs. I'm going to assume the MTV influx of new artists played a role: to make yourself memorable, it helps if you have a theme song. "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" was released somewhere in the middle of Wang Chung's career though, so draw from that what you will.

In a Big Country by Big Country
Big Country released quite a few albums. They had three songs that charted in the top 100 in the U.S. But if you've heard any of their songs apart from this one, I would be astounded. In the U.S., they are considered to be one of those "one-hit wonders." This song has a wonderful sound though, I can't imagine what would keep people away from their full discography.

Talk Talk by Talk Talk
Talk Talk are one of the most well-respected groups of the 80s (in the musical community that knows who they are). I'd always thought maybe this song was a concept pushed by the record label, but there is an early demo of this song (then titled "Talk Talk Talk Talk") from 1977 available on Within Without. So I guess the band name probably came from this song rather than the reverse.

They Might Be Giants by They Might Be Giants
Since They Might Be Giants have a great sense of humor about themselves, I can't really imagine this song not existing. Interestingly, They Might Be Giants also recorded "We're The Replacements," which some assume is a cover of a self-referencing song by The Replacements, but it's simply They Might Be Giants making a comment about being on the road in a band [Source].

Fistful of Mercy by Fistful of Mercy
I heard an interview with the band a while back (I can't remember where or I would cite it), in which they basically state that they decided to give themselves a self-titled song. It's a far cry from the humor of "They Might Be Giants," but "Fistful of Mercy" is a very flowing, soulful song, much like the rest of Fistful of Mercy's album.

Creeque Alley by The Mamas and the Papas
While the band's full name is never mentioned, "Creeque Alley" tells the tale of the genesis of The Mamas and the Papas and The Lovin' Spoonful (and a little bit of The Byrds'). It also references their hit "California Dreamin'."

KMFDM also sing about themselves a lot. It can be pretty amusing.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Album Review: Some Nights by fun.

Indie supergroup fun. hit the scene in 2009 with Aim and Ignite. Some Nights takes the pleasant pop qualities of Aim and Ignite and tries to expand on them with some new musical components. There are some hits and misses amongst the new effects, but you can't hate them for trying.

The album opens with "Some Nights (Intro)," a song which adequately introduces some of the new roads this album travels down, whilst still feeling very much at home in their repertoire. It also serves to introduce the album title "some nights" as a common phrase. The phrase "some nights" is used in four different songs on the album. It can also be assumed from "Some Nights (Intro)" that Some Nights will have a slightly darker tone than that of Aim and Ignite. The band attempted to capture the tone of the song in the video, but I'm not entirely sure that I don't get more out of the song on its own.

"Some Nights" strays back toward the power pop feel of Aim and Ignite, but it also introduces Auto-Tune to the album. "Some Nights" is very catchy, and is only overshadowed by the following song "We Are Young," which became a huge hit single after it was covered on Glee. "We Are Young" was also used in a Chevy Sonic commercial which premiered during the Super Bowl. Even without these sales tactics in mind, the song has incredible flow and power to it that should be able to sell it on its own.

My favorite track on the album though, is probably "Carry On." "Carry On" seems as though it could be the theme for an Oscar-nominated movie. The Irish-influenced strings give it both strength and a sense of culture. "It Gets Better" took me a couple of listens to enjoy. At first, it sounds only a few inches away from an early 2000s alt. rock song, but it is more complicated and melodic, thus saving itself. "It Gets Better" also uses noticeable Auto-Tune. "Why Am I The One" seems like a throwback to lead singer Nate Ruess's days in The Format until it shifts into the chorus, which might be the most flowing of any chorus on the album. The chorus of "Why Am I The One" also features great harmonies borrowed from early 70s folk music.

"All Alone" is my favorite story song of the album. Ruess has a tendency to create amazing stories in his lyrics, and "All Alone" is a perfect example, even if I can hear late 90s boy bands in the melody of the chorus. One of the weaker songs on the album is "All Alright," which seems to have very little energy and an only vaguely interesting chorus. "One Foot" has a great, bouncy beat and a consistently interesting melody.

The only track on Some Nights that I truly dislike is "Stars." "Stars" starts out well enough, with references to the band's origins and dealing with new-found fame. The horns so prevalent on Aim and Ignite are brought to the forefront, and it seems that all will go well. Then, about halfway into the song, Ruess suddenly becomes some demented Kanye West clone, with all of the Auto-Tune they didn't use on other tracks splashed on in not-so-glorious technicolor. Generally, Nate Ruess has a good voice that lends itself well to the songs he sings. The Auto-Tune makes "Stars" sound dead and terrible. It's a pity that "Stars" is the official closer for the album.

I'm not sure how "Out on the Town" counts as a bonus track, since it seems to be on every copy of the album from what I can tell. Either way, "Out on the Town" is a much more pleasant and fitting closer for Some Nights than the artificial "Stars."

If Auto-Tune can't be counted as a fault in this album, I feel fun. should at least take note to use it in moderation. Apart from the use of computerized vocal enhancement, the production of this album is smooth and thoughtful. fun. bring in a lot of strings and instruments that some people forget have as much place on a pop album as anything else. It's nice to see the experiments performed on Some Nights, and I can't wait to hear the smoothed-out sound I'm sure their third album will have.

fun. are a group consisting of (left to right): Andrew Dost (of Anthallo), Nate Ruess (formerly of 
The Format), and Jack Antonoff (of Steel Train).

Some Nights can be previewed and purchased at the band's website.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Brief History: Music in Political Campaigns

For almost 200 years, politicians have been using recognized songs as campaign "hooks." Andrew Jackson used "The Hunters of Kentucky" for his presidential campaigns in 1824 and 1828. As far as we know, Jackson started a trend that continues to this day.

The problem occurs when politicians decide to use songs without gaining permission from the artists first.

Such a situation has only recently come to light with Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who has been using "Eye of the Tiger" as his campaign entrance song since 2009 without permission from Survivor. Gingrich is being sued for "damages" and Rude Music Inc. is requesting that he be banned from using the song [Source].

But Gingrich is certainly not the first politician to get in trouble for using a song they were not authorized to use:
  • Bruce Springsteen was displeased when Ronald Regan tried to use "Born in the U.S.A." in 1984.
  • Sam Moore re-recorded "Soul Man" for Bob Dole's campaign, changing the lyrics to "Dole Man." The problem was, Moore was not the copyright holder for the song, and the actual copyright holders at Rondor Music threatened to sue if Dole continued to use even the "parodied" version of the song. Issac Hayes, the real writer of "Soul Man" told The New York Daily News: "As a U.S. Senator, he ought to know that you can’t do that." Dole discontinued use of the song [Source].
  • Michele Bachmann and George W. Bush each received cease and desist letters from Tom Petty for use of "American Girl" (Bachmann) and "I Won't Back Down" (Bush). 
  • Bachmann was also asked to stop using "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves.
  • Former Florida governor Charlie Crist was sued by David Byrne (Talking Heads) for using "Road to Nowhere" (which, really, is that something you want associated with your political trail? Isn't that what got Sarah Palin in trouble back in '08?).
  • Speaking of which, Heart were very annoyed when Sarah Palin used "Barracuda" without permission. The Wilson sisters said: "Sarah Palin's views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women. We ask that our song 'Barracuda' no longer be used to promote her image" [Source].
  • John McCain managed to stir up several well-known musicians. Jackson Browne sued him for his use of "Running on Empty" and John Mellencamp issued a cease and desist letter for McCain's use of "Pink Houses" and "Our Country" during the presidential run. McCain stopped using all three songs and issued an apology to Browne for using "Running on Empty" in an attack ad directed at Barack Obama. Bon Jovi ("Who Says You Can't Go Home") and The Foo Fighters ("My Hero") also both requested that McCain stop using their songs in the 2008 presidential campaign.
  • "Pink Houses" was also questioned for its use in a NOM (National Organization of Marriage) event. Mellencamp sent a letter to NOM, telling them his views were at odds with theirs and requesting that they "find music from a source more in harmony with your views than Mr. Mellencamp in the future."
  • Mike Huckabee was asked by Tom Scholz of Boston to stop using "More Than a Feeling." 
  • Barack Obama got into trouble for using "Hold On, I'm Comin'" by Sam and Dave at his rallies.
The funny part to me is that most of these politicians then support things like SOPA when they come up in legislation, yet they break similar rules with complete disregard.

Musicians are not always at odds with politicians though. When candidates request permission or at least have similar political ideology, things tend to go more smoothly:
  • "Pink Houses" was used in for the presidential campaigns of John Edwards in 2004 and 2008 and Mellencamp played "Pink Houses" at Obama's inaugural celebration in 2009.
  • Hilary Clinton did receive permission to use Tom Petty's "American Girl."
  • Eddie Rabbit authorized use of "American Boy" for Bob Dole's campaign.
  • Bill Clinton's official campaign song in 1992 was Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop."
  • "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive was the theme song for Al Gore's 2000 campaign as well as being the theme song for the Democratic party in 2006.
  • "Beautiful Day" by U2 was also used by the Democratic party in 2006 and by John Kerry in 2004.
  • will.i.am. and other various artists composed "Yes We Can" around one of Barack Obama's speeches.
Now, whether the songs used for political campaigns are lyrically suited is another matter entirely (and one I'm sure I will cover).

Bottom line? Just like any other arena in life, it's best to get permission before using an artist's song. Because it's far more embarrassing and expensive to have to clean up later.